Northern Ireland news

Rising special needs pupil numbers straining school budgets, report finds

The report said there was a growing funding crisis in Northern Ireland's schools

INCREASING numbers of children with special needs is piling pressure on school budgets, a new report has found.

The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee (NIAC) has today published a report following its inquiry into education funding.

The committee had been told schools were at "breaking point".

Members examined whether education funding was sufficient to meet the challenges facing the sector.

A previous report from the auditor general found the system was coming close to a tipping point. Kieran Donnelly found while funding increased between 2012/13 and 2016/17, there was a 9.3 per cent reduction in real terms.

Now, the NIAC report shows that in the two-and-a-half years since Stormont collapsed, a growing funding crisis has resulted in "unmanageable pressures" on school budgets.

The rising number of pupils with special educational needs (SEN) and disabilities "is a key driver of the trend".

The number of SEN children in schools has risen by almost 30,000 in a decade and a half. Almost one in every four pupils now has SEN, with a handful of schools educating 200 or more children.

The committee concluded that schools "urgently need more money to address the growing pressures facing staff, pupils and parents".

The committee heard that some schools were under such financial strain that parents donated supplies such as toilet roll and stationery.

The report called for the education budget to be increased in line with pupil numbers and to reflect the costs associated with caring for those with SEN.

It said teachers deserved pay rises like their counterparts in Britain.

The committee also recommended:

:: The education department should find out how the 2019/20 allocation of funds from the 'confidence and supply' agreement is being spent.

:: Ministers should explain how programmes will continue to be funded after the exhaustion of confidence and supply funding.

:: The department and Education Authority should establish a health and wellbeing strategy for teachers, staff and school leaders.

:: The department should review the common funding formula to identify a fairer and more efficient balance of funding.

Committee chairman Simon Hoare said stagnant funding was having a devastating impact on the ability of schools to provide the education and support their pupils deserved.

"Without an executive or assembly, budgeting challenges have mounted into a crisis," he said.

"Northern Ireland's education system desperately needs more money to cope with the rising number of students presenting with special educational needs and disabilities and unmanageable pressures on resources and school staff.

"Ultimately, Northern Ireland needs Stormont to be restored so that long-term structural problems within the education system can be addressed. Steps can be taken now to improve the situation for Northern Ireland's schools, but lasting change can only come from a Northern Ireland Executive."

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